If we take as our starting point the functional differentiation of modern society as analyzed by Durkheim, Parsons, Luhmann and others, we can view higher education institutions, in particular in the paradigmatic form of the public research university, as operating at the intersection of four societal subsystems: research, education, politics, and the economy. The first two are usually viewed as “internal” to higher education institutions, while politics and the economy are considered to belong to their environment. A variant of this view is the amalgamation of the first two as “academia,” and the corresponding conflation of the last two into “society” – giving the oft-used dichotomy of “the university vs. society," as if the university existed outside society.
From the perspective of academics performing their daily work, these are understandable and perhaps unavoidable simplifications. They, and they only, can provide society with research and higher education, but everything else (production and distribution of goods and services, political campaigning and decision-making, etc.) must be handled by others, elsewhere. Indeed, is precisely this form of specialization operating under conditions of autonomy which allows for the extremely complex performances we sometimes find in academic work.
From a societal viewpoint, however, it is obvious that HEIs, as organizations, are firmly incorporated into the political system through various legal and financial instruments (especially in Scandinavia). There is furthermore a mutual dependency between HEIs and the economic system in the shared expectation that the labor market will be able to hire most of their graduates, and that the “knowledge economy” will somehow be able, at least in the long run, to transform some of their research output into profits. If not, academia as we know it would not be possible. This obviously means that whereas the autonomy of the various systems will have to be respected, there are also issues regarding HEIs which are of concern to all the implicated function systems and their associated organizations, especially under conditions of societal change.
If the above is an adequate conceptualization of the societal condition of HEIs, a major concern becomes inter-systemic coordination in the policymaking field we usually call “higher education.” To formulate the question more precisely: Given that 1) the four involved function systems operate according to widely different system logics, 2) they are at the same time (and precisely therefore) mutually dependent upon each other, and 3) no master logic exists in modern societies which can legitimize a ranking order among them, - given these conditions, which forms of coupling mechanisms between them are necessary, and possible, in order to coordinate aspects of “higher education” which are of concern to the four implicated societal subsystems?
In this paper I will provide an analysis of a frequently used administrative mechanism devised for this purpose, namely the temporary committee of inquiry. The empirical material studied will be documents pertaining to a series of five commissions of inquiry regarding higher education in Norway, spanning a period of almost fifty years: The Kleppe Committee (1960-61), The Ottosen Committee (1965-70), the Hernes Committee (1987-88), the Mjøs Committee (1998-2000), and the Stjernø Committee (2006-2008). Comparisons will be made with the use of temporary committees in Denmark and Sweden, especially in the 50s and 60s.
More specifically, I will investigate the rationale behind the use of temporary committees of inquiry, the contexts and procedures of committee work, the selection of members to sit on committees, and how the criteria for selection seem to have changed over time (fewer civil servants and politicians, more academics and social partners). I will also discuss the use of temporary committees as compared to an alternative which in Norway has been repeatedly suggested by several of the committees of inquiry themselves, as well as by parliamentary committees since the 1970s, namely a national standing committee or council for higher education. Such a body was established around 1970 in both Denmark and Sweden, but not in Norway. I conclude the paper by discussing some possible explanations for this discrepancy.
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